Saturday, October 13, 2007

Vietnam Syndrome RIP 1972-2007

A strange silence has fallen over the Iraq war debate in the past month. News reports of American war deaths and suicide bombings have dried up. Calls by Democrat legislators and presidential candidates to de-fund the war effort and force a timetable for troop withdrawals have ceased. Yet no-one in the mainstream media will come right out and declare what they all know to be true: the war in Iraq is over. We won. Mission accomplished.

Bartle Bull of the Prospect has no such reticence. In an admirably concise but thorough history of the conflict he makes it clear why the conflict is essentially over, and how it arrived at that point. From his analysis it also becomes blindingly obvious why the Bush strategy to stay the course, and even to escalate the conflict with the surge of the past year was the right strategy, and that every Democrat attempt to paint the war as a Vietnam quagmire that was doomed to failure was wrong.

Iraq's Sunnis would not be needing the help of the US today had the Sunni leadership not made a historic miscalculation back in 2004. Saddam, a rational man, made an understandable but fatal misjudgement about the people he was up against, and paid for it with his throne and his neck. His Sunni supporters did not learn from this. Thinking they were dealing with the post-Vietnam America of Carter, Reagan and Clinton, they took up arms to prevent the Americans from delivering on their promise of an Iraq that could freely choose its leaders. The habit of centuries of overlordship also fed the Sunni miscalculation: to them, Shia control was unthinkable and so the insurgency was sure to succeed.

By the second half of 2004, the insurgency had had six months to show what it was capable of, and it became clear that its goal could not be the military defeat of the Americans. The Sunnis were now fighting not for a military victory but a political one, to win in the US congress and the newsrooms of CNN and the New York Times the war they could not win in the alleys and date palm groves of Mesopotamia.

With regard to violence against their fellow Iraqis, the Sunni strategy revealed itself quickly to be an effort to provoke the Shias into full-fledged communal violence and civil war. Such a conflagration would be so hot that even Bush's Americans would run for home. The key moment in this strategy was the bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra. Until then, the Shias had shown great restraint at the stream of Sunni provocations. Shia cells targeted Wahhabis and Baathists, but mostly left the Sunni populace alone. Under the steadying influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, their religious leader, the Shias endured mass slaughters in markets, buses and schools throughout 2004, 2005 and early 2006 without large-scale retaliation. As the main beneficiaries from the new Iraq, the Shias could only lose from a prolonged civil war.

The Samarra bombing seemed briefly to be the final straw. The Shia death squads, most associated with the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, long chafing under Sistani's restraining hand, were let slip. Neighbourhood cleansing began in much of Baghdad and went on for a year until Petraeus's surge began in February. It continues in many places where his troops are not present.

The world held its breath after Samarra: here, we thought, comes the cataclysm, the civil war that many had feared and that others had sought for three years. But it never happened. The Shia backlash in parts of Baghdad was vicious, and the Sunnis were more or less kicked out of much of the city. But over 18 months later, it is clear that the Shias were too sensible to go all the way. It was never a civil war: no battle lines or uniforms, no secession, no attempt to seize power or impose constitutional change, no parallel governments, not even any public leaders or aims. The Sunnis rolled the dice, launched the battle of Baghdad and lost. Now they are begging for an accommodation with Shia Iraq.

What is the evidence for this? This summer, Maliki's office reached out to Baathist ex-soldiers and officers and received 48,600 requests for jobs in uniform; he made room for 5,000 of them, found civil service jobs for another 7,000, and put the rest of them on a full pension. Meanwhile leading Baathists have told Time magazine they want to be in the government; the 1920 Revolution Brigade—a Sunni insurgent group—is reportedly patrolling the streets of Diyala with the 3rd infantry division, and the Sunni Islamic Army in Iraq is telling al Jazeera it may negotiate with the Americans. The anecdotes coming out of Baghdad confirm the trend. The drawing rooms of the capital's dealmakers are full of Baathists, cap in hand. They are terrified of the Shia death squads and want to share in the pie when the oil starts flowing. Both Izzat al-Douri, the more prestigious of the two main Baathist leaders, and Mohamed Younis al Ahmed, the more lethal, have been reaching out from neighbouring countries to negotiate an accommodation. Since the summer, the news coming out on the Sunni front has consistently been in this one, inevitable direction.

The Shia story was different. There have been two broad tendencies in Iraq's Shia politics: the pro-Iranian camp and the nationalist camp. Iraq has two great traditional pro-Iranian Shia parties—Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (the former SCIRI). They fought Saddam from exile and spent the wilderness years in Iran. Opposed to these two is the al-Sadr movement, which—under Muqtada al-Sadr's father Mohammad Sadeq, killed by Saddam's men in 1999—fought Saddam from inside Iraq and kept its sense of anti-Iranian Iraqi nationalism intact. Of these tendencies, only al-Sadr's rose up to fight the Americans.

Muqtada al-Sadr's announcement of a unilateral six-month ceasefire on 29th August was significant, but not for the reasons most apparent. Al-Sadr actually stopped fighting the Americans three years ago. He rose up against them twice in 2004, but since the end of his second uprising, his Mahdi army has focused its violence on Wahhabis and Baathists, with frequent clashes against other Shia factions. Al-Sadr's movement is splintered and immature. Its less legitimate fringes have been active in sectarian cleansing. Many who do have ties to his movement frequently work beyond his control. Some of these tendencies continue to direct violence against the coalition, but this is negligible compared to the force of a true Sadrist resistance, as anyone who was in Najaf or Sadr City in 2004 will attest. Since this spring, US troops have been comfortably based in Sadr City—the giant Baghdad slum that is the power base of the Sadrists.

In mid-September, the al-Sadr parliamentary bloc withdrew its support for Maliki's government, without providing a public explanation. This repeats a pattern. In April, al-Sadr withdrew his ministers from the cabinet in ostensible protest at the remaining presence of the coalition forces; while in December 2006 he did the same thing in protest at a meeting between Maliki and Bush. Each of these exercises was greeted as Iraq's latest cataclysm, but, in the latter two cases, a month or two later al-Sadr's chiefs were quietly back fronting the ministries that their minions had continued to run in their absence. The point is that having al-Sadr playing political games rather than military ones is the most positive thing that could be happening in Iraq.

Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's most successful, popular and important politician, has underwritten Iraq's progress towards legitimate politics since late 2004. His sense of Iraqi nationalism will never allow Iranian dominance; his fraternal stance towards the peaceful Sunni tendencies, and the sheer size and passion of his movement, make his support for the project of reconstruction and pluralism in Iraq the most important political factor in the country. Prospect readers will not be surprised to read that al-Sadr is on the right side of the key issues, and that this is helping Iraq get over its transition from 35 years of Baathism's murderous apartheid (see "Iraq's rebel democrats," Prospect June 2005). Since 2004 I have pointed out that al-Sadr, as leader of the country's largest popular movement, has more to win from a functioning electoral politics than from fighting the Americans who guaranteed the polls that liberated his people, or from fighting the Iraqi government of which he is himself the joint largest part.

As we have noted, the real al-Sadr ceasefire began three years ago. But by saying publicly, again, that his men are putting down their guns, al-Sadr is declaring in the most unequivocal way that the violence in Iraq is not in his name.

Iranian-made rockets will continue to kill British and American soldiers. Saudi Wahhabis will continue to blow up marketplaces, employment queues and Shia mosques when they can. Iraqi criminals will continue to bully their neighbourhoods into homogeneities that will give the strongest more leverage, although even this tide is turning in most places where Petraeus's surge has reached. Bodies will continue to pile up in the ditches of Doura and east Baghdad as the country goes through the final spasm of the reckoning that was always going to attend the end of 35 years of brutal Sunni rule.

But in terms of national politics, there is nothing left to fight for. The only Iraqis still fighting for more than local factional advantage and criminal dominance are the irrational actors: the Sunni fundamentalists, who number but a thousand or two men-at-arms, most of them not Iraqi. Like other Wahhabi attacks on Iraq in 1805 and 1925, the current one will end soon enough. As the maturing Iraqi state gets control of its borders, and as Iraq's Sunni neighbours recognise that a Shia Iraq must be dealt with, the flow of foreign fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria will start to dry up. Even today, for all the bloodshed it causes, the violence hardly affects the bigger picture: suicide bombs go off, dozens of innocents die, the Shias mostly hold back and Iraq's tough life goes on.

The thing to understand about Democrat defeatism, both during Vietnam and Iraq, is that it wasn't so much driven by a conviction that we cannot win, but a conviction that we should not win. The Democrat vision of America is of an arrogant power that can only make the world worse by attempting to fight for democratic principles. No matter how miserable a nation's people might be under the yoke of an oppressive cultural or political tyranny, they believe that things can only get worse by actually confronting those tyrannies with force.

I'm hoping that one of the legacies of the US victory in Iraq is that the Vietnam Syndrome is put to rest for good, and that the majority of American citizens finally realize that the US is a force for good in the world. One can hope.


Blogger erp said...

Excellent post. We noticed that Iraq seems to on the back burner and there hasn’t been much about Moslem terrorism in the media this summer.

OTOH -- our local liberal rag has had any number of puff pieces complete with colored pictures spreading across many pages of local Moslem families, their costumes, culture, holiday food, etc. Nary a political word to be heard.

Possibly the message has been received and only the dems in congress haven’t heard it yet.

October 13, 2007 10:51 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Oh crap. You're rewriting the history of Vietnam.

It was the Democrats staying the course and the Republicans cutting and running back then. I remember. I was there.

It is curious that isolationism has migrated parties. Along with fiscal restraint. American politics begins to remind me of French politics, where the Radicals were the conservatives.

Anyhow, the Prospect story sounds well-informed (how would I know) and makes a pretty story. I think I'll wait before I throw in my hand with the born-again democrats of the Baath party.

Bush doesn't say many profound things, but 'they killed all the Mandelas' came close.

Perhaps I am unduly pessimistic, having just finished Eric Weitz's 'Weimar Germany,' but in every Muslim (and a good many non-Muslim) countries I see the fundamental problem of transition from medieval to modern -- if most of the population is untrained in being modern, the government feels it necessary to fall back on 'technocrats' to run the railroads.

But, since the technocrats got educated by virtue of belonging to the old elites, they have a vested interest in not letting the country become modern.

At the most optimistic, it takes a generation to work through this problem. In only a few countries does it ever get worked through.


Does anybody besides me think that the statement by Gen. Sanchez is the most despicable thing ever said by an American officer?

October 13, 2007 10:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Good point, but notice that I dated the Vietnam Syndrome from 1972. That's when the Democrats, by picking George McGovern, decided to become the anti-war party. The war was all but over, and we won. After Watergate, with the ascension of the Democrat congress in 1974, the Democrats couldn't abide a win, so they stripped all support for the South Vietnamese regime. The North won because we abandoned the South after we had fought so long and hard to defend it. It was one of history's greatest betrayals.

October 13, 2007 11:23 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Can you point to a link of what Gen. Sanchez said?

October 13, 2007 11:23 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

We believe that war is a waste of human life. We are determined to end forthwith a war which has cost 50,000 American lives, $150 billion of our resources, that has divided us from each other, drained our national will and inflicted incalculable damage to countless people. We will end that war by a simple plan that need not be kept secret: The immediate total withdrawal of all Americans from Southeast Asia.


October 13, 2007 11:27 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Also, It is curious that isolationism has migrated parties isn't so curious at all. What happened to the Democrats in the 70's has never been adequately explained, I think, for the simple reason that you can never adequately explain why someone gives in to a suicidal impulse. But once that's done it shouldn't be surprising that sane people flee, and it is a two-party country, there's only one other place to go.

October 13, 2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Duck: text of Sanchez's speech is here. I should expect it's this part that's got Harry worked up:

Almost invariably, my perception is that the sensationalistic value of these assessments is what provided the edge that you seek for self agrandizement [sic] or to advance your individual quest for getting on the front page with your stories! As I understand it, your measure of worth is how many front page stories you have written and unfortunately some of you will compromise your integrity and display questionable ethics as you seek to keep America informed. This is much like the intelligence analysts whose effectiveness was measured by the number of intelligence reports he produced. For some, it seems that as long as you get a front page story there is little or no regard for the "collateral damage" you will cause. Personal reputations have no value and you report with total impunity and are rarely held accountable for unethical conduct.

Although Sanchez gives everybody their turn in the barrel: the Administration, both parties, Congress, the press, and the permanent government (the "inter-agency", Sanchez's phrase not mine.) I wouldn't call it despicable, just naive, if he ever really expected unity of effort.

October 13, 2007 12:20 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Naive and a little late. But his assessment that there is no end in sight doesn't comport with the facts on the ground.

I think he's trying to massage the historical account to place his own service in the best possible light, which seems to mean blaming everyone else for what he didn't accomplish on his watch.

October 13, 2007 12:26 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Facts on what ground? Sure, Sanchez is CYA'ing, not that he has very much of his left after Abu Ghraib. But he's also talking about the nation's inability to get its shit all in one sock. That inability is Viet Nam Syndrome, and it isn't beaten, it's permanent now.

October 13, 2007 12:39 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

I thought this part was pretty good, although I haven't looked at the rest of his remarks.

October 13, 2007 1:43 PM  
Blogger erp said...

It was the Democrats staying the course and the Republicans cutting and running back then. I remember. I was there.

Harry, Harry, Harry, what are we going to do with you? That is one of the most ridiculous statements I've ever heard or read.

October 13, 2007 2:37 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't mind what Sanchez said about the reporting. It has been atrocious. Pro con and neutral. All of it.

No, what I thought was despicable was telling men he had commanded that while he was commanding them they were wasting their time.

He should have resigned, if that was the case.

It's pretty to think the RVN had won, but it hadn't. There was no functioning government in SVN and nobody prepared to agree to join one, either.

It wasn't only me who didn't want to die for Madame Thieu's racehorses.

I don't see much sign of a functioning government in Iraq (or Egypt, for that matter), so when somebody at Prospect starts drawing parallels, that's the first parallel I draw.

October 13, 2007 5:04 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Then who defended her race horces during the 1972 Easter invasion?

October 13, 2007 6:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It wasn't only me who didn't want to die for Madame Thieu's racehorses.

Harry, I was with you back then (although obviously not subject to the draft) but I am rather ashamed of such thinking now. There are indeed growing parallels with Iraq in the sense that many folks seem to be increasingly dwelling on the putative corruption, disorder and fecklessness of the Iraqi government and responding with a kind of visceral "dirty-hands" disgust. I suspect that, much as we did with the Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong, they are increasingly, perhaps unconsciously, drawn to a dreamy image of the militants (love that word!) establishing order and basic services like, well like Hussein. In fact, I've read defences of Hussein in the last year that would have been unimaginable two years ago. We love to talk about how messy freedom is on the home front but we seem to believe non-whites should live (march?) in a mess-free world. Is this not the kind of thinking that led most of the intellectual West to lionize Stalin and Mao for two generations and consider a hundred million deaths to be collateral damage?

In retrospect, wasn't fighting for Madame Thieu's horses far more noble than ushering in the Killing Fields?

October 14, 2007 4:39 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

despicable...wasting their time...should have resigned...
it wasn't only me who didn't want to die

And there's our trouble, right there. It's probably not possible to distill it down any neater than that. We can be that easy on ourselves; or we can be that demanding on guys like Sanchez, who have done so much more than their fair. But we can't do both, in practically the same breath. Just won't do. But Viet Nam Syndrome requires us to.

October 14, 2007 8:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Messy would be good. Not functioning is what's bad.

There was a clip from a GI last week about how the Iraqi army takes off one week in four. Gotta go home to mamma.

Talk about doing your fair.

October 14, 2007 11:03 AM  
Blogger David said...

The more I go over the decisions made by the US with respect to the invasion, the more convinced I become that the key decision was Paul Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi military and para-militaries. We people criticize that decision, what they're saying is that, by overthrowing the old, corrupt power structure, we bought ourselves three or four years of instability (read, terrorism causing American and civilian deaths) and the real possibility of all out civil war between the Shia and Sunni. Those are real criticisms.

When the decision was made, I was unsure whether I agreed. Now, I'm convinced that it was the right decision. As Harry said in another thread, stability isn't everything. This is, in effect, the difference between Germany, which we de-Nazified, and Japan, in which we coopted most of the existing power structure. Was Iraq more like Germany or more like Japan? I say Germany.

Iran, on the other hand, might be more like Japan.

October 14, 2007 11:05 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

We were not ruthless enough.

If you're going to invade a whole country, you probably ought to at least be willing to shoot the leaders of the regime that deserved to be deposed.

I propose that if we had shot every Baathist of the rank of colonel (or bureaucratic equivalent) and above the first month, there wouldn't have been an intifada.

It doesn't follow that there would have been democracy, though.

In Iraq, of all places, the elite regime was so ignorant and incompetent that the problem of having just lopped off the heads of the intelligentsia would not have arisen.

That's what happens when you go blundering about in regions where you don't know anything.

(My first insight into the counterrevolutionary implications of having a revolution, then bringing back the old regime came from Allen Nevins' history of Reconstruction, read many years ago. You could learn the same from Stendahl. Weitz in 'Weimar Germany,' makes the same point, though not as elegantly as Stendahl nor as thoughtfully as Nevins. It ain't rocket science.)

October 14, 2007 1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's what happens when you go blundering about in regions where you don't know anything.

God Bless the Blundering USA!

October 14, 2007 4:28 PM  
Blogger erp said...

I'm off to slumberland and thank you for that nice send off. I'll think upon it while I fall asleep.

October 14, 2007 7:17 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Joe, David:

Great comments.

October 14, 2007 11:50 PM  

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